Everybody in the tiny Kent town seems to know who Sarah Dodd is. Even when she takes time out for a quick dip in the sea, locals want to discuss their wine orders with her. Graham Holter pays a visit
Sarah Dodd is pleased to have a roof over her head, because it wasn’t always the case at her previous premises.
“You’d be sitting there and the wind would get up – it would lift the roof panels and unfortunately not always put them back in the right place,” she remembers. “You’d have a gap in the ceiling and have to call the landlord to get him to put them back again.
“You can imagine if it was pouring with rain and it comes through the ceiling and hits cardboard boxes overnight. Now I can lie in bed on a stormy night and not have to worry that the roof is still on.”
In January, Sarah relocated from a warehouse in the quaintly named Moat Sole, in the middle of Sandwich, to a shop just around the corner on a busy shopping street. The move marked the latest chapter in the history of a business that has seen its share of twists and turns over the years.
It started in 2006, when a vet called Andrew Lomax opened the warehouse in Sandwich. One of his suppliers was the now-defunct HwCg (an amalgam of Hedley Wright and Castle Growers). It was while working for HwCg that Sarah met her future husband Kevin; the couple married in 2007.
Growing restless in his HwCg role, Kevin saw potential in the fledgling Hercules business and eventually bought it outright, with Sarah joining the company two years later. Things went well enough for a second branch, in Faversham, to emerge.
Kevin, who spent 11 years in the army before embarking on a career in the wine trade, was an accomplished musician and a keen golfer; a funny and gentle man whose sudden death in 2018 robbed the wine trade of one of its most likeable personalities.
Despite this, Sarah was determined to soldier on, though it made sense to offload the Faversham shop. “It was very expensive to service, and it was staffed seven days a week,” she says.
“The rates were horrendous. It was fine when everyone was in place, everything worked beautifully, but if someone phoned in sick I had a problem because I can’t be in two places at once.”
The new shop occupies a space that has been inhabited by other wine retailers in the past, as well as a brewery. The main sales area is open plan, with boxes of fast-moving lines stacked on the floor. To the rear, a former storage area serves as the home of European wines; a smaller room, just off the central space, does the same job for new world wines.
Is it fair to say that, as a double act, you were more concerned with the actual business and Kevin was more involved in the wine side of things?
Yes. I’d always done the accounts and the admin, which I really enjoy. Obviously when Kev went I had to take over the buying. I don’t always get it right. I can struggle with the ordering and there are occasions where I just throw my hands in the air. Our suppliers are wonderful, they are very good.
Have you evolved the range or is it essentially the same kinds of wines that Kevin used to buy?
Kev was a fantastic taster, he really was. He knew his left bank from his right bank and with Australia he could pinpoint if it was, say, Barossa or another region. He cut his teeth on German wines when he was in the army, so he was pretty good on Germanic wines. Sometimes he would buy a wine that was absolutely stunning and it would probably be a lot easier to sell it these days, because the world has got smaller and people are a lot more aware of different grape varieties etcetera. He was perhaps a little bit before his time.
I think I’ve kept going along the lines that, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
If Kevin walked in now, would there be anything in the range that would make him say, “why did you buy that?” or is it all stuff he’d recognise or appreciate?
I think he’d be pretty happy. He might ask why I hadn’t got a couple of wines.
We used to do one from ABS but I haven’t done a huge amount with them recently. It was a fantastic wine called The Pepper Pot [from David Finlayson in Stellenbosch], he was always quite fond of that. But I think on the whole he’d be pretty happy.
Even if I’m walking the dog, villagers will say hello and start asking about the wine they’re going to buy from me
Which suppliers do you work with the most?
I do quite a lot with Boutinot on house wines for the trade accounts. They are a wonderful company to work with. Most of our suppliers are pretty darn good.
North South I like. I think we first dealt with them with the ripasso wines, from Girelli, who both Kev and I worked with at HwCg. So when Girelli moved to North South we started dealing that way rather than shipping direct.
When did you join Vindependents?
I think Kev got in very early. It works really well for us. I like their wines and they’ve got a very good team there.
I didn’t get to the tasting [in September] purely because we’re down on staff numbers at the moment. Also they’ve stopped our high speed train that would go straight through. They go to so much effort to put these tastings on, but I just couldn’t make the time.
Do you ship anything direct?
In April I put my toe back in the water, thinking that everything would be tickety-boo and hunky dory and I think it was five weeks from ordering before the wine reached bond from Burgundy. It was infuriating – I can walk to the end of the road and see France.
Like so many indies, you did well with deliveries during lockdown. Did you pick up new customers, and have you hung on to them?
Yes, we were inundated. I think that evening, when the whole nation was sat there watching Boris speak, all I could hear was my email pinging with orders from the website. It really took me by surprise and completely floored me.
There were quite a lot of names I didn’t know and the next day the telephone didn’t stop. I did choose not to open the door. I thought that was morally a little bit wrong, if the government was saying “stay home, stay safe”, and I was saying, “come out and shop”. I think that was the same with everybody. We all operated behind closed doors.
We picked up a lot of customers, and lost a few – as soon as the supermarkets opened, they went back to buying from there.
Out of the people I supply in the village now, I know one of them was with the Sunday Times Wine Club. She said that she got so angry with them, and so she’s stayed with me.
How would you summarise Sandwich in terms of its population and demographics?
I wouldn’t know what the population of Sandwich is [it’s just under 5,000] but it’s probably bigger than you think.
One thing I’ve really noticed in the past year is the number of people that have relocated from London. It’s great because there’s a lovely influx of a younger generation. Sandwich was very much a retirement place and it’s almost rejuvenated the town, it’s been lovely to see. We’ve got a few writers around here.
Pre-Covid it was a bit tired, I think. There were a lot people who had holiday homes here, particularly on the bay, but there are some very, very good schools around here. There are some great grammar schools in Dover, there’s a very good independent school in Ramsgate. There are some independent traders, which is always lovely. The London guys are used to shopping in their little circle, in their independent shops, and they’ve come here and carried on doing that.
We’ve got a fantastic butcher around the corner. We haven’t got a fishmonger but there is one who comes in on market day. The market is brilliant, with good stalls, so it’s very busy.
Is there a villagey kind of feel?
My brother lives in Cambridge and he was down a couple of weeks back and he said it feels like the sort of place where people say hello to you. Well, it is, because I know most people anyway and people if they don’t know my name, they say hello, it’s the wine lady. I think it’s a lovely town.
I was down at Sandwich Bay with the dog on Saturday and had a little swim. I bumped into a customer who said, “oh, glad I’ve seen you, is there any chance I could have a case of wine?” So wherever I am, even if I’m walking the dog in the morning, villagers will say hello, and start asking about the wine they’re going to buy from me.
People do come to us, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing to keep plugging and sending out the odd email to remind people that we’re still here
Not surprisingly, your wholesale trade declined during lockdown. Is it on the way up again?
Yes, it’s doing really well. At the moment I have three accounts in Sandwich and one in Deal. I can service them easily but anything outside of that I am going to struggle because of staffing at the moment.
I used to get – same as everybody, I should think – CVs through all the time, about two or three a week, but there’s been nothing. I wonder if when the furlough scheme ends that will get people out looking again.
How many people are there in the team now?
There’s me, Mia [the labrador] and John who does two days a week and Iain who does two days a week. Dan, bless his cotton socks, has been with us on and off since 2013-14 and his other job is signwriting. He decided in June to make a go of that full time, so I’ve said to him the door is always open and if it goes a bit quiet he can give me a shout and come back again. He’s a great bloke, he did the social media and newsletters.
Mia is an absolute asset because as soon as people walk in, they say, “isn’t she gorgeous?” She’s a real icebreaker. She’s so good with children and she loves everybody.
Do you find that social media and newsletters are still important to you? You seem so embedded in the town, maybe they’re not necessary.
I think people do come to us, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing to keep plugging and sending the odd email out to remind people that we’re still here. I think word of mouth helps. If you give customers a good service they will always come back – and I think we give really good service.
How many days are you in here?
I’m always popping in and out because I do all the deliveries, which actually I really enjoy doing because you get to see all the customers. I’m covering holiday at the moment. John and his family are farmers and they’ve just finished hop picking.
Are you doing tastings at the moment?
I haven’t started those back up yet. I was talking to one of our suppliers the other day and he said that outside of his day job he was a member of a local wine society and they’d had to cancel the tasting they hadplannedbecause people didn’t fancy it.
We do quite often have a bottle open on a Saturday.
There’s a nice no-frills, warehousey feel to the main retail area.
Originally this was Unwins, then it was a Threshers, then Strand Wines had it for a little bit, and then it was a clothes shop. In the old Threshers days, it was really dark, with all that dark wood that Threshers did. Strand stripped everything out.
The warehouse was big, but we can get everything in here and just spread out over three rooms. I didn’t have to de-list anything. When you have a blank canvas, it’s amazing how much you can fit in.
Coming from a warehouse into a shop, we had to get a happy medium, and hopefully that is what we have achieved. You want people to come in and not think, “hmm, they’re ripping the pants out of me”. You want to give a good honest price.
Kev always said he didn’t want to do that “buy six and get another six free” thing – that smacks of charging too much in the first place. Occasionally you can have a little promotion, but just put the wines out at an honest price.
Being out here in the wilds of east Kent, do you still feel that you are connected to the wine trade in a broader sense?
No. It’s funny, isn’t it? Maybe when I get back to the tastings I will feel reconnected. I still see people [at tastings] that I knew from the trade when I first started. People don’t tend to leave the wine trade.
Maybe we are out on a bit of a limb here.
Are you happy with where the business is now? What will you do next?
I’m happy with the way it is. I’d always intended to retire at 50, then it became 55 and now I’m staring 60 – I’ve been in the wine trade too long.
The one thing I would love to do is to go and live on a Scottish island for six months. Not to be the only person on it, but to experience that island living. I think that would be an interesting thing to experience.
Many years ago I travelled in the Outback, and that was almost like living on an island because it was so remote.
If I sold the business, that would be it because I feel I’ve done my bit for queen and country and the taxman. I would miss my customers. You get to know them. It’s a good business to be in; you do meet some lovely people.